How ‘Great’ Was Alexander? - Part Three

As Alexander’s army found out, the growing dissatisfaction with its commander was fatal. To take but a few brief examples. In the autumn of 330 at Phrada Alexander had Philotas, the commander of the Companion Cavalry, charged with conspiracy. There is little doubt that there was a conspiracy against the king at this time, but the evidence against Philotas was slight. Despite this, Alexander, in a staged trial before the army assembly (Curt. 6.8.23) had him condemned and then executed by stoning.[32] Alexander did not stop with Philotas’ execution: his father Parmenion was also treacherously put to death on the king’s orders.[33] Parmenion’s reputation was great and he was of course very powerful, however he was just too great a danger for Alexander to allow to roam loose and resentful when questioning Alexander’s growing Asian leanings.

Then in late 328 after a defeat of a Macedonian force by Spitamenes, Cleitus, commander of the Royal Squadron of the Companions and one of Alexander’s closest friends, criticised Alexander’s expansionist plans, his personality cult, and praised his father Philip II. The setting was a drinking party and most of the protagonists had drunk too much, as was the Macedonian wont. Tempers flared, and a furious Alexander again allowed reason to give way to emotion. He grabbed a pike and ran Cleitus through.[34] Finally, in 327, Callisthenes, whose moral victory a short time before in preventing the introduction of proskynesis (see above) had him implicated by the king in the serious Pages’ Conspiracy and then sadistically executed (Arr. 4.14.1-3, Curt. 8.6.24). Our sources indicate that Callisthenes was not part of the Pages’ Conspiracy;[35] all would see, however, that this was how criticism of the king for policies not in keeping with Macedonian custom was punished. It is hardly surprising that the contemporary source Ephippus (FGH 126 F5) says that those present in Alexander’s court lived in a reign of terror. Alexander’s growing paranoia is demonstrated by the events referred to, but he also seems to have suffered increasingly from mood changes and bouts of depression: he was probably, in today’s terms, bipolar.

However, while the men in his army might have understood Alexander’s reasons because they were there, with him, not so those back home who could only see a king moving further away from his roots, further away from the traditions his father had fought to uphold, becoming more of a paranoid megalomaniac with each passing day. Moreover, as has been said but is worth repeating, they did not properly know him since he had ruled at home as king for only a short time before he left, and only a mutiny by his army was making him come back. Bewilderment can only have changed to dissatisfaction, then, human nature being what it is, to resentment at his disregard of them.

Certainly, Alexander changed the mandate of the League of Corinth, switching the invasion of Persia from its panhellenic motive to a personal one, to destroy the Persian empire and beyond. But it was one thing to conquer Asia Minor and liberate Greeks there and defeat the Great King, another to want to take over as ruler for according to Plutarch (Alexander 34) Alexander was proclaimed ‘king of Asia’, presumably by the Macedonians in his army. The Greeks also would be questioning what Alexander was up to — he had needed them for his Asian invasion (hence why he treated their revolt in 336 with moderation), and probably a large number of Greeks did support the campaign given its panhellenic sentiments (Diod. 16.89.2). However, the invasion was no longer for its original panhellenic ideal. The move now was not to establish a Macedonian empire in Asia but a kingdom of Asia and even to move the capital from Pella to probably Babylon, perhaps Alexandria.[36] That his people back home in Macedon did not want this is shown by the measures which Alexander took to keep his army at full strength. According to Arrian (7.8.1, 12.1-2), Alexander was generous with pay and bounties to soldiers in order to encourage those at home to join him in Asia. If his people had been united behind him in further conquest there would have been no need of such apparent generosity. What we are dealing with here are bribes since those at home did not want to follow Alexander’s pothos, and normal pay could not persuade them.

Was Alexander using his own people for his own personal ends now? Philip II risked the lives of his men as well, but for his state’s hegemonic position in international affairs, not for his own selfish reasons or a pothos which might well jeopardise that position of Macedon. Others saw the danger, even from early in his reign. Thus in 335, after the successful termination of the Greek revolt, which broke out on the death of Philip II, Diodorus (17.16.2) says that Parmenion and Antipater urged Alexander not to become actively involved in Asia until he had produced a son and heir. Alexander opposed them for personal reasons: he could not procrastinate at home waiting for children to be born when the invasion of Asia had been endorsed by the League of Corinth! In the end, says Diodorus (17.16.3), he won them over. Then in 331 Darius III offered inter alia to abandon to Alexander all territories west of the Euphrates and to become the friend and ally of the king.[37] Parmenion thought the Persian king’s offer to be in the Macedonians’ best interests, but Alexander refused to accept it (in a famous exchange in which Parmenion is alleged to have said that if he were Alexander he would accept the terms, and a displeased Alexander is alleged to have replied that if he were Parmenion he would, but instead he was Alexander).

The authenticity of this exchange is probably suspect, and in any case it is hardly surprising that Alexander would have refused such an offer given the difficulties of administering the Euphrates frontier (as the Romans would later learn). However, every story has a kernel of truth, and this particular one indicates that at least some of his generals anticipated trouble and were unsettled by Alexander’s cavalier attitude towards the future and especially the succession. The aftermath of his death in 323, the eclipse of Macedonian power, and the ensuing decades of bloody warfare between his successors down to around 301, would prove how unthinking and mistaken he was.

Parmenion’s criticism and resistance to Alexander’s plans led eventually to his execution (see above), but who could believe the reason Alexander gave for it? The same goes for Philotas. And Cleitus’ death at the hands of Alexander is hardly an example of a king able to put reason over emotion; all the more dangerous given his tendency to consume vast draughts of alcohol, which further muddled his thoughts and allowed his paranoia, rage, and emotional turmoil to come to the fore. What must the people back home have thought when they expected their king to return on completing his mission, only to see him move further east, killing his own men in paranoid or drunken (or both) frenzies along his way, ignoring the welfare and best interests of his people, the long-term administration of his empire, and giving no thought to a son and heir?

Here, Alexander fails miserably in what is expected of a king. The chaos revealed in that short-lived compromise in Babylon in June 323, shortly after the king breathed his last, was not solely owing to the personal ambitions of various generals (and one secretary), but the result of Alexander’s neglect of his country and empire. His hyperactivity in putting constant expansion over administration, not to mention not providing an adult heir, cost the empire any unity and chance of surviving him intact. Alexander did not follow a strategy of conquest, consolidation and long-term administration, but was constantly on the move. As a result, and especially as he moved further east, territories behind him revolted almost as soon as he left. This does not show foresight in making and keeping an empire. He misjudged the native peoples as he moved across Afghanistan and into modern Pakistan, thinking that defeated in battle meant conquered.

Consider also the outcome if as a result of his foolishness Alexander had died during the siege of Malli, in the lower Punjab in 326.[38] The nomadic Malli tribe had stolen his horse Bucephalus, and Alexander with his army set off to retrieve it. The Malli offered to return it when faced with the might of a Macedonian army, but Alexander, always thirsty for a fight and thinking little of the consequences, besieged the town. There was no need to do this. At this siege Alexander scaled the wall of the town and found himself suddenly cut off from his men when the scaling ladders broke behind him. Leaping down amongst the enemy he fought on, in the process having his right lung punctured by an enemy arrow and almost dying. He was saved by his men storming the town, who then went on on orgy of murder. Who would have taken over as commander and as king if Alexander had died? Only literary heroes jump into the enemy’s midst as Alexander did at Malli. There was no heir, and the aftermath of his death showed there was no one undisputed leader.

In 327 at Bazeira Alexander was engaged in a lion hunt in a local forest with several others, including Lysimachus (Curt. 8.1.14-16). The king killed a lion, one that was apparently of extraordinary size (magnitudinis rarae; then again, it would have to be in an Alexander story). In the process he rudely treated Lysimachus by taunting him about a wound he received when he had killed a lion in Syria, and no doubt embarrassing him in front of the others. Afterwards the army voted (scivere gentis suae more) that Alexander should never place himself in such danger again (Curt. 8.1.18). In so doing the army must have been remembering the earlier lion hunt involving Lysimachus, who had suffered wounds which almost cost him his life (8.1.15). Regardless of whether the army passed an official vote or merely a motion requesting that Alexander refrain from endangering his life in the future, his men had very real fears of what would happen were he to die. Alexander’s activities at Malli showed how little he heeded his army’s fears and pleas in the pursuit of his own personal gloria.

The adverse reaction of the army towards Alexander and his policies is further re-inforced by the decision on the part of the Macedonian Army Assembly at Babylon after his death to abandon his future plans (Diod. 18.4.2-6, Justin 13.5.7). Assuming these are authentic, they included the invasion of Arabia during the winter and spring of 323/2[39] and the circumnavigation of the peninsula, the construction of 1000 warships in the South-East Mediterranean larger than triremes, the building of six temples each costing 1500 talents, the erection of a memorial to his father to rival the greatest pyramid, and significantly the transpopulation of 20,000 people from Asia to Europe and vice versa for the purposes of racial unity and intermarriage.[40] These projects were abandoned for reasons other than Philip III Arrhidaeus or Perdiccas was incapable of leading the Macedonians on them, as Hammond would argue,[41] but because they represented all that the people did not consider properly Macedonian practices, especially the continuation of racial fusion. In other words, they represented all that the people had come to hate in Alexander.

Alexander’s autocratic nature and its adverse impact on his army have been illustrated many times, but it extended beyond the men with him to the Greeks back on the mainland. One example is his Exiles Decree of 324, which ordered all exiles to return to their native cities (excluding those under a religious curse and the Thebans).[42] If any city was unwilling, then Antipater was empowered to use force against it (Diod. 18.8.4). The context was no doubt to send home the large bands of mercenaries now wandering the empire and which posed no small military or political danger if any ambitious satrap or general got his hands on them. The decree was technically illegal since it clearly flouted the autonomy of the Greek states, not to mention the principles of the League of Corinth, but Alexander cared little about polis autonomy or the feelings of the Greeks. Although the Athenians refused to receive back their exiles (Curt. 10.2.6-7), resistance, to coin a phrase, was futile: Alexander was king, the Macedonians controlled Greece, and the final clause of the decree on coercing Greek cities would not be lost on them. The flurry of diplomatic activity to the king over the decree proves this, even though outright rebellion was not planned at that stage.[43] His death altered the situation dramatically, and only one state, Tegea, actually implemented the decree.[44]

There is no need to deal in great detail with the notion which originates in Plutarch’s treatise on Alexander (see above), and has found its way into some modern works (such as Tarn’s biography), that Alexander pursued an actual policy to promote a unity of mankind. In other words, that Alexander is deserving of the title ‘Great’ for these ideological reasons. The belief is ‘founded’ on such factors as his integration of foreigners into his army and administration, the mass mixed marriage at Susa (324), and Alexander’s prayer for concord amongst the races after the Opis mutiny (also 324). The belief is quite erroneous, and Alexander, as with everything else, was acting for purely political/military, not ideological, purposes. For one thing, it is important to note that in the army foreigners were not peppered consistently amongst existing units, and when this did happen the instances are very few and far between. Thus, a few Persians are found incorporated in the agema of the Companion cavalry (Arr.7.6.4-5), and Persians and Macedonians served together in a phalanx at Babylon (Arr. 7.23.3-4, 24.1), but Alexander’s motive in both cases was military.

While Alexander did use Persians and Orientals in his administration it was always Macedonians and Greeks who controlled the army and the treasury. For example, at Babylon Alexander appointed as satrap the Persian Mazaeus, who had been satrap of Syria under Darius and commander of the Persian right at the battle of Gaugamela. However, Apollodorus of Amphipolis and Agathon of Pydna controlled the garrison there and collected the taxes (Diod. 17.64.5, Arr. 3.16.4, 7.18.1). In a nutshell, the natives had the local knowledge and the linguistic expertise. The conscious policy on the part of Alexander was to have the different races working together in order to make the local administration function as efficiently as possible, and had nothing to do with promoting racial equality.

Then there is the mass wedding at Susa, also in 324, at which Alexander and 91 members of his court married various Persian noble women in an elaborate wedding ceremony (conducted in Persian fashion too), which lasted for five days.[45] The symbolism as far as a fusion of the races is concerned is obvious, but again too much has been made of this marriage: it is important to note that no Persian men were given honours at Alexander’s court or in his military and administrative machinery. Moreover, no Macedonian or Greek women were brought out from the mainland to marry Persian noble men, which we would expect as part of a fusion ‘policy’. A closer explanation to the truth is probably that Alexander could not afford these noble women to marry their own races and thus provide the potential for revolt, something mixed marriages with his own court might offset. That the marriages were forced onto his men (cf. Arr. 7.6.2) is proved by the fact that all apart from Seleucus seem to have divorced their wives upon the king’s death. Once again, however, Alexander seems to have ignored the displeasure of his men, ultimately at great cost to himself and his empire.

Finally, the great reconciliation banquet at Opis in 324 (after the second mutiny),[46] in which Macedonian, Greek, Persian and Iranian sipped from the samecup, and Alexander significantly ‘prayed for various blessingsand especially that the Macedonians and Persians should enjoy harmony as partners in the government’ (Arr. 7.11.9). Yet, inter alia it is important to remember that Alexander had played on the hatred between the Macedonians and the Persians in ending the mutiny, and that the Macedonians were seated closest to him at the banquet, thereby emphasising their racial superiority and power. Moreover, we would expect a prayer to future concord after such a reconciliatio since dissension in the ranks was the last thing Alexander needed given his plans for future conquest, which involved the invasion of Arabia in the near future![47] Thus, we may reject the notion of a ‘brotherhood of mankind’, and divorce it from any objective evaluation of Alexander.

In conclusion, the ‘greatness’ of Alexander III must be questioned, and the historical Alexander divorced from the mythical, despite the cost to the legend. There is no question that Alexander was the most powerful individual of his time, and we must recognise that. For sheer distance covered, places subdued, battle strategy, and breadth of vision he deserves praise. In just a decade he conquered the vast Persian empire that had been around for two centuries, and he amassed a fortune so vast that it is virtually impossible to comprehend. Alexander also improved the economy of his state (to an extent) and encouraged trade and commerce, especially by breaking down previously existing frontiers (of major importance in the hellenistic period), and an offshoot of his conquests was the gathering of information on the topography and geography of the regions to which he went, as well as new and exotic flora and fauna.However, at what cost? Was the wastage in human lives, the incalculable damage to foreign peoples, institutions, livelihoods, and lands, not to mention the continuation of the dynasty at home, the security of Macedon, the future of the empire, and the loyalty of the army worth it?

That Alexander did not endear himself to his own people and that they grew discontented with him, has significant implications for his ultimate objectives and how he saw himself. The move to establish a kingdom of Asia with a capital probably at Babylon is significant.[48] Given his disregard of the feelings of his own people (as evidenced by his lack of interest in producing a legal and above-age heir to continue the dynasty and hegemonic position of Macedon), we can only surmise that his belief in his own divinity and his attempts to be recognised as a god while alive — including the attempt at proskynesis — are the keys to his actions and motives. As Fredricksmeyer has so persuasively argued,[49] Alexander was out to distance himself as far as possible from the exploits and reputation of Philip II since his attitude to his father had turned from one of admiration and rivalry, from one warrior to another, to resentment. He strove to excel him at all costs and he could not handle praise of Philip (the reaction to Cleitus’ taunts about Philip is an obvious indication of this). Military conquest was one thing, but simple conquest was not enough: Alexander had to outdo Philip in other areas. Deification while alive was the most obvious way. Everything else became subordinated to Alexander’s drive towards self-deification and then his eventual and genuine total belief in it.

Therefore, it is easy to see, on the one hand, why Alexander has been viewed as great, but also, on the other hand, why that greatness — and thus his epithet — must be questioned in the interests of historical accuracy.


32. Arr. 3.26-27, Diod. 17.79-80, Plut. Alexander 48-9, Curt. 6.7.1-7.2.38, Justin 12.5.1-8. For discussion of this incident and that involving Parmenion which follows, see Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 101-103, citing sources and modern bibliography.
33. Arr. 3.27.3-4, Diod. 17.80.3, Plut. Alexander 49.13, Curt. 7.2.11-32.
34. Arr. 4.8.1-9, Curt. 8.19-51, Plut. Alexander 50-52. For discussion see Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 114-16, citing modern bibliography.
35. Arr. 4.14.1, Plut. Alexander 55.6., Curt. 8.6.24, 8.8.21.
36. On this issue cf. the remarks of Errington, History of Macedonia, 111-14.
37. Arr. 2.25.2-3, Plut. Alexander 29.7-8, Curt. 4.11.1-18.
38. Arr. 6.11.1, Diod. 17.99.4, Curt. 9.5.20. See Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 135-7, citing sources and modern bibliography.
39. N.G.L. Hammond, Alexander the Great. King, Commander and Statesman2 (Bristol 1989) 300-1 and n.138
40. Diod. 18.4.4.
41. History of Macedonia, 3. 105.
42. Diod. 17.109.1, 18.8.4 (text of the decree, from Hieronymus of Cardia), Curt. 10.2.4, [Plut.] Moralia 221a , Justin 13.5.2. On the background see, for example, Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 220-8, citing sources and modern bibliography.
43. See further Worthington, ‘The Harpalus Affair and the Greek Response to the Macedonian Hegemony’, Ventures into Greek History. Essays in Honour of N.G.L. Hammond, ed. Ian Worthington (Oxford 1994) 307-30.
44. Ian Worthington, ‘The Date of the Tegea decree (Tod 202): A Response to the Diagramma of Alexander or of Polyperchon?’, Ancient History Bulletin 7 (1993) 59-64.
45. Arr. 7.4.1-8, Diod. 17.107.6, Plut. Alexander 70.3, Justin 12.10.9-10.
46. See above, with note 17.
47. On the whole issue of a ‘unity of mankind’ see further, for example, E. Badian, ‘Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind’, Historia 7 (1958) 425-44 and A.B. Bosworth, ‘Alexander and the Iranians’, JHS 100 (1980) 1-21.
48. On this issue cf. the remarks of Errington, History of Macedonia, 111-14.
49. E. Fredricksmeyer, ‘Alexander and Philip: Emulation and Resentment’, CJ 85 (1990) 300-15.

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